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Monday, August 13, 2018

Master Blueprints # 31: “Some People They Tell Me, I’ve Got the Blood of the Land in My Voice”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “I Feel a Change Comin’ On”
Album: Together Through Life
Release Date: April 2009

In a pre-concert interview at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Tribute Concert in 1992, Lou Reed confidently stated that he believed Dylan had not yet reached the summit of his creative capabilities.  Flashing forward to today there has since been 1) eleven studio albums 2) a treasure trove of a Bootleg Series (13 and counting) 3) Theme Time Radio Hour 4) the “Never Ending Tour” 5) a page-turner memoir (Chronicles: Volume One) and 6) a masterful movie about the man (Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home).  At the core of it all was 4-straight studio-album gems:  Time Out of Mind (1997), “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009).  With all that output, one could say today that Sweet Lou’s words were truly prophetic.  Here was a man - Bob Dylan - in his 50s, 60s, and beyond, cranking it out as good as he had at any period in his life:  A rare treat for the rock music crowd….and darn motivational for those of us who still aspire to the creative accomplishments of our elder statesman as we approach this period in life ourselves.

The fourth-quarter installment of those 4 studio-album gems, Together Through Life, has, for me, required a patient ear.  Upon its release, my early forays listening to it could be summed up in the words of a younger generation thusly; “meh” …. which is always the tricky moment with albums that have this initial effect on me.  To take more cracks at it or not?  Sometimes music requires repeated listening to hear the deep genuineness within (Neil Young’s Time Fades Away comes to mind).  Other times it is just plain bad (Randy Newman’s Faust, unfortunately).  I’ve learned over the years that there is a bit of a trick to figuring it out:  Listen, and if you are ambivalent, put it down for a spell; be it a month, several months, even a year. Then give it another go; particularly if you hear good things from others who have your respect when it comes to music.  If you are still not impressed after round 2, bag it.

Together Through Life benefited from what turned out to be a necessary third listening phase, compliments of how I have approached this blog series.  As mentioned before, I did some prep work with Master Blueprints, spending all last year trying to fill in the gaps of my Bob Dylan discography.  Listening Phase II for this album played out during that time, specifically on a work trip via automobile to and from Sherbrooke, Quebec.  During that drive, pieces were beginning to gel for me, including the closing number “It’s All Good”, a return-to-form protest song for Bob Dylan, the title alone reflecting how some in the privileged upper class respond to the harsh realities of the world around them (one of my favorite moments in the song is a cynical exclamation “Whoo!” at the 4:10 mark, Dylan sounding extraordinarily like a much younger Blonde on Blonde version of himself).  And then there was “My Wife’s Home Town”, Bob Dylan showing his great sense of humor there.  All in all, this experience was helpful, and yet I needed further convincing. 

Early this week, I recalled last year’s drive north as I queued up Together Through Life for Listening Phase III.  The big reason that memory came back to me was that I coincidentally was heading back to Quebec, this time for fun.  A colleague, Mike, who I had become friends with through my Canadian coordination efforts these past 10 years, had invited Nancy and I to spend a few days with he and his wife at their stunning country home in the Eastern Township hamlet of South Hatley, just south of Sherbrooke near the Vermont border (side note: South Hatley is where Secret Window was filmed, starring Johnny Depp).  Mike also happens to be a fellow Bob Dylan enthusiast.  One way we express our mutual admiration for Dylan is that we always close email exchanges with a lyric of his to reflect upon.  These quotes are typically in reference to the work-related reason for the email exchange, seeing as there’s always something there in Dylan’s vast catalog to relate a topic to (but finding the right line usually requires a bit of forethought). 

Anyhow, it was a wonderful visit, and a much-needed getaway.  Mike and I kept work discussion to a bare-bones minimum (for the wives’ sake, but also for our own), but we did manage to fit in some discussion on our other favorite topic.  This kept Bob Dylan on the brain, which was helpful for me as I continued to negotiate Together Through Life as the week rolled along.  As hoped and anticipated, the pieces were beginning to fall into place nicely.  The opening number, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” seeped in first, with its refreshing jaunty vibe.  Soon enough I began hearing the accordion everywhere on the album to a degree I had not before.  From there it was a domino effect.  My ears quickly opened to “Jolene”, “If You Ever Go to Houston” and the deep thinker “Forgetful Heart”.  Best of all, was “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” ( https://www.mojvideo.com/video-bob-dylan-i-feel-a-change-comin-on/3551124e5886d97189fc ), a song that found its way to the core of my consciousness, leading to it being chosen as this entries Blueprint cornerstone. 

How did I not pick up on the addictive “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” before?  It’s so strange how you can listen to a song without connecting, and then one day…. Boom!  I pondered on this as the week progressed, and once again found my mind flashing back to that first Together Through Life Quebec drive last year.  I concluded that the difference between then and now was in my ear for Bob Dylan’s vocals, not just in terms of this song, but the entire album.  Now we all know Dylan’s vocals are an acquired taste.  In fact, I hate to admit this, but for the life of me, I never could make the mental breakthrough with Bob Dylan’s post 1990 concerts despite having caught a handful of his shows in the last quarter century or so….and it all came down to his vocals.  For others, including my wife, it’s much more than that; virtually his entire catalog is a struggle for her vocal wise (she does like “Hurricane”).

Post 1990 studio albums all took some additional level of effort on my part, Bob Dylan’s vocal delivery showing its age as the decades have rolled along.  I always find myself lagging a bit behind getting my ears tuned correctly.  For example, the positive tipping point for me for “Love and Theft” was about 10 years ago after a few years of ambivalence.  From then on, I had the ear.  Next up was Modern Times, which also took a while.  I should have known this was the process I was going through with Together Through Life.  It wasn’t the music, it was simply the vocals that needed patience to adjust to.

Bob Dylan actually addresses his vocals in “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” with the self-aware line “Some people they tell me, I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice”, which is one of my all-time favorite Dylan lyrics.  Has he always felt this way though?  It would make sense.  Dylan adapted his vocal delivery very early in his career.  You hear it from “The Times They Are a Changin’” on (with a few exceptions, including the entirety of Nashville Skyline).  Bob Dylan has refused to be labeled to anything throughout his career (“I’m Not There”), but if someone were to pose to him that he has always sung with the blood of the land in his vocals and in his thoughts, I’m not sure he would disagree.  His is a singing style of serious nature, and of all the musicians I love listening to, Dylan is the most consistently serious in just about everything he does in the public eye. There must be unspoken reasons for this.  Reasons that require commitment to a promise made-to-self a long time ago, and never broken.

I feel a change comin’ on” is a phrase that is repeated throughout the song, which of course gets your focus when it comes to trying to dissect the meaning.  Unlike much of Bob Dylan’s music, there is nothing remotely credible on the web that diagnosis this song.  This can be a good thing. It can get your wheels spinning independent of anyone else’s interpretation.  My early thoughts were like others I had read:  A Dylan effort at self-change.  But the more I listened the more I felt this was way too easy.  And so, I rewound and repeated, taking in the song in different atmospheres - morning, noon and night for example - to see if I could find the right aligning of the stars that would have me breaking on through to the other side…. and then finally, after about 4 days of this, I got there.

“I Feel a Change Comin’ On” is a song on par with Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” in terms of meaning.  It’s about change happening not so much from within Bob Dylan, but in the world around him (ditto Robert Hunter, Dylan’s cowriter for most of the songs on Together Through Life).  Some of these changes are good, and some not so.  At one extreme is hope.  For example, the early line about his gal “walking with the village priest” indicates that she’s coming around in profound ways, trying to connect more with her spiritual soul.  A later stanza reaffirms this awakening:

Life is for love
And they say that love is blind
If you want to live easy
Baby pack your clothes with mine

…. insinuating that with more openness to faith comes a deeper understanding of love.  But there are other changes happening as well, which is summed up at the end of the song:  

Everybody got all the money
Everybody got all the beautiful clothes
Everybody got all the flowers
I don’t have one single rose

It would defy character to think that Bob Dylan is wallowing in self-pity here. I believe what Dylan is really saying in these lines refer to how much of the world feels this way these days.  It’s a big picture view. 

All of this plays out with the refrain “and the fourth part of the day’s already gone”.  In other words, just when you think there is no possibility for change, that’s when it happens.  Take vocal chords for example.  But one thing Bob Dylan fans can rely on is artistic integrity, personified in many ways, including as a reflection of blood of the land.  I'll take that over a perfect set of pipes lacking substance any day. 

Pete

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Master Blueprints # 30: “Mama Take This Badge from Me, I Can’t Use It Anymore”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
Album: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Release Date: July 1973

Pulling into the work parking lot this past Monday after my standard 40-minute commute, I slipped into a vacant spot next to a familiar pickup truck.  After shutting off the car, grabbing my laptop, and briefly collecting my new-workweek thoughts, I stepped out into a warm summer breeze and started walking into the office.  As I passed the rear of that truck, however, I suddenly found myself uncharacteristically stopping in my tracks.  I did this to read the fine print on a bumper sticker that, for whatever reason, caught my eye with large bold print which declared “Don’t Obey!”.  With my full attention, the fine print then went on to read “- more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion (C.P. Snow).”

Now, I’ve walked past this truck quite often on my way in and out of the office, seeing as it was purchased at least a few years ago by a colleague.  However, with my mind typically elsewhere, I’d not taken in this bumper sticker – bold print, fine print, none of it - until that moment.  Considering the circumstances, which I will get to soon enough, I found this out-of-the-box moment rather fascinating.  Anyhow, after reading and mulling over some, I continued into the office and set up shop.  But even after logging into the laptop and jotting down a few notes to put my priorities in proper order for the workday ahead, I could not get that quote out of my head.  And so, I went back outside to the back of that truck, notepad and pen in hand, and proceeded to write it all down – verbatim - for this blog entry. 

What was it that had me so fixated on that Charles Percy (C.P.) Snow quote?  Yes, it’s an intriguing declaration to ponder, but it was more about the entire set of circumstances that hit me.  This was primarily because, on my way into work that morning I had made my choice on what album I was going to listen to in search of this week’s Master Blueprint inspiration: Bob Dylan’s 1973 soundtrack album Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which was produced for the Sam Peckinpah movie of the same name.  I then commenced to listen to it from beginning to end as I drove in.  And the central theme to that movie?  You got it:  It’s captured in a nutshell on that bumper sticker.

It was the 3rd time in a week that this general thought was thrust in my face.  The first was a Facebook video clip of a recent speech given by actor Matt Damon, whereby he made a very similar statement, noting among other key points that this was what our Founding Fathers did (these are after all interesting times, are they not?)  The second of course was in reflecting on the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid on my drive into work.  The based-on-actual-events film portrays the lawman, Pat Garrett (James Colburn), struggling with his conscience while hunting down his old friend, now adversary, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), who is portrayed in contrast as a free-spirit of-a-man (“Billy, they don’t like you to be so free” as Bob Dylan sings it).  Obedient compromise vs. lawless integrity?  Yeah, that’s the general idea.  But after listening and contemplating all week, I’m now thinking…. not so fast. 

Spoiler alert: Skip the following paragraph if you wish to watch the movie before knowing the ending. 

The movie ends symbolically with Pat Garrett shooting at his own reflection in the mirror after the successful bounty killing of Billy the Kid.  Also symbolic is a boy throwing rocks at Garrett as he rides off on his horse, hinting at a younger, more innocent version of himself now disgusted with the older, compromised person he has become.  Side Note: Watching the movie now, it reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s excellent 1992 film Unforgiven, but in that Academy Award winner (Best Picture), Eastwood would flip the roles around; the outlaw heavy with guilty conscience, not so the ‘lawful’ sheriff.

Bob Dylan acts in the movie as the quirky sidekick character “Alias”, which is a tiny bit of comic relief for such a depressing movie.  But it’s his score that he will be best remembered for in relation to Peckinpah’s film, particularly one classic original song, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bWzyiU-S_w ), which strums along in the background as one of the lawman characters, played by Slim Pickens, comes to the realization he is dying from a bullet wound, his wife sobbing by his side. The scene humanizes this Western in a way that few scenes in the genre do. 

Only one other song in the soundtrack has lyrics, “Billy”, which is performed in several incarnations (Billy 1, 4 and 7).  The remainder of the songs are Tex-Mex-style instrumentals with names that evoke wild west scenes, such as “Turkey Chase”, “River Theme” and “Bunkhouse Theme” (the latter sounding very much as the inspirational guitar chords for Pete Townshend’s “God Speaks, Of Marty Robbins” off The Who album, Endless Wire).  This works like alchemy for a film with such powerful visual effect.  It’s an ideal album to play in the car as you make your way through beautiful open vistas, especially in the southwest. 

“Billy 1” (& 4 & 7) is an interesting song that complicates the general narrative of the film in a good way.  Other than the prior-mentioned line about being free, the lyrics do little to glorify William H. Bonney (aka Billy the Kid), in the fashion that Bob Dylan does for another 19th century western outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, on his 1967 song and album of ~ the same name (Dylan adds a ‘g’ to the last name).   As with Pat Garrett, there’s a compromised man lurking in those lyrics, which include a line about killing a woman in El Paso, another line about people making advances on Billy the Kid’s spirit and soul, and the repeated Prodigal-Son-like refrain “Billy, you’re so far away from home”. “Billy 1” (& 4 & 7) makes me curious as to what the lyrics would have been if Dylan had written a song about the man hunting him down (the closest we get is the instrumental “Cantina Theme – Workin’ for the Law”).   It would have made for an interesting compare/contrast.

Speaking of Pat Garrett (again), I believe it’s no mistake that his name preceded Billy the Kid’s in the title of the movie.  Garrett’s role and character flaws are scoped out more than The Kid’s.  We see him getting angrier as the movie unwinds, not so much at Billy the Kid, but at himself.  Right, wrong, good, bad, abiding, not abiding, obedience, disobedience, truth, consequence….it all plays out in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  These are themes which never get dated, at least for as long as we humans struggle with our humanity.

Which brings me back to that work-lot bumper sticker.  It’s been stirring up all sorts of thoughts this week.  For example, people who are saying these sorts of things in the United States these days are generally left leaning.  They are angry, and as I see it, rightfully so.  Yet only eight years ago it was the newly formed rightwing “Tea Party” that was rattling cages with comparable sentiments.  In Texas, as recently as 2 years ago, right-leaning common folk and GOP legislators were even initiating petitions and floor votes to succeed from the Union.  Along the same vein, the same type of crowd has been protesting confederate statues being removed from Southern campuses and parks; those depicted on the statues being the last ones who were successful at succession back in the 1860s.  Now that the shoe is on the other foot, those of right-leaning ideology shout ‘unpatriotic’ when, for example, football players kneel during the National Anthem.  Succession one day, patriotism the next.  Food for thought, ehh? 

Anyhow, from this multi-pronged point of view, that bumper sticker is politically neutral.  You kinda gotta take it a bit further with that core statement to make your allegiances clear.  You also kinda gotta know your current events when reading such sentiments to put it all into proper context.

One historical fact that hovers over Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is the settling of the West.  There was no longer room for free-roaming spirits like Billy the Kid in the late 19th century.  Fences were being erected to make the case for large expanses of private property.  The government was asked to intervene for the property owners and to do so with force if necessary.  They obliged.  It’s a big reason why the civil service grew exponentially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: The property owners demanded it (not only to defend their land, but to map it, survey it, and connect it with a road network).  Side Note: Today 96% of Texas is privately owned, and there’s an insistence by many that the government now stay out of their faces.  More shoes switching feet. 

Since I had movie-watching on the brain this week, I began thinking of characters who defied the law on the big screen.  The first one who came to mind was Steve McQueen as Hilts (aka “The Cooler King”) in the classic World War II prison-camp movie, The Great Escape.  Here is a defiant, law-breaking (albeit Nazi prison camp law) role that seems to transcend political affiliation.  “The Cooler King” representing common ground?  Gotta start somewhere I suppose.  Billy the Kid on the other hand?  Now there’s a tricky one.  With all those shoes switching feet back and forth in the past 100-plus years, it’s hard to discern who if anyone would have his back if he were defying the law in the southwest today (unless perhaps if he was taking over federal buildings on public land).

The thought I found myself lingering on the most this week in relation to that bumper sticker is the position of many in the religious right, who adhere to a strict interpretation of the Bible in abiding to the law (i.e. Romans 13:1).  That is of course, unless the law is in contradiction to God’s will.  I can understand this to some degree.  The problem however then becomes your own interpretation of God’s will.  Getting it wrong has gotten a lot of civilizations into big trouble over the centuries.  That’s where conscience must kick in.  We all intuitively know right from wrong and hopefully we all know somebody with integrity who can help guide us when a touch of grey insidiously seeping its way in.  It can mean the difference between an act of kindness vs. self- centeredness.  On the bigger picture, it can mean the difference between peace and war.  What truly amazes me about the religious-right is its acceptance of leaders with all sorts of serious human faults if those leaders connect with their own personal agenda That’s how the grey seeps in.  Hey, I admit, this happens with any ideology, left or right.  But isn’t faith supposed to rise above the fray?

I’m not sure of the political affiliations of that parking lot pickup truck owner (we keep these sorts of opinions to ourselves, at least with each other), but based on the presence of that bumper sticker during the current events we are living right now, I have a pretty good idea.  Regardless, that quote brought out the politics in me this week, a topic I typically avoid, as I do try to keep this blog site generally upbeat and positive.  And yet, I’m fine with scoping out these thoughts this week, because they are fundamental to the story that is Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  Bob Dylan typically avoids such subject matter as well, but I think he knew all along what he was getting himself into when he signed up to act and produce the music for this early 70’s flick. 

The original version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” clocks in at 2 ½ minutes, unusual brevity for a Bob Dylan song.  However, in that brief span of time, it packs a wallop with straight-forward lyrics.  It’s the inevitable end game of a song when black and white turns an ugly shade of grey. As is the case of the bumper sticker, there’s plenty of grey in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, resulting in scene after scene of heavy, sad scenarios playing out.  It’s a good movie and soundtrack that gets you thinking, but in the end… all that grey is my take-home message. 

Pete

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Master Blueprints # 29: “If You Can’t Do the Time Don’t Do the Crime, Heart of Mine”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Heart of Mine”
Album: Shot of Love
Release Date: August 1981

In the months leading up to this year’s Master Blueprint series, I scrambled to tie up a handful of loose ends so I could have at least some affinity with every one of Bob Dylan’s 38 studio albums.  Of the roughly 8 discs whereby I was pretty much starting from scratch, the one that was the most pleasantly surprising was Shot of Love; the 3rd in the trilogy of Dylan’s Christian albums which were released from 1979 to 1981 (each one by the way consisting of entirely self-penned, faith-centric songs).  The album rocks.  And, of the tunes on that album that I had never heard before (ruling out “Every Grain of Sand”, a glorious number which I will be tackling at a later date) it was “Heart of Mine” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5konBDe0CU ) that hit me hardest.

“Heart of Mine” is a hidden-gem-of-a-song that has a jaunty feel to it, which, despite the profound seriousness of the lyrics (which I will get to) makes sense from my point of view, because several of the musicians who perform on the studio version, Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr, have reputations as two of the most upbeat, fun-loving guys in Rock & Roll history.  The song also includes Booker T and the MG’s Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, who clearly propels “Heart of Mine” forward with a clever, funky beat. We also hear two drummers, Jim Keltner and Chuck Plotkin (Ringo plays tom toms), along with William “Smitty” Smith on organ.  And of course, there’s Bob Dylan himself on the jaunty piano and lead vocals, along with Clydie King on backing vocals.  I’ve seen most of these musicians perform one or more times over the years (at the very least that list includes Dylan, Starr, Wood, Dunn, and Keltner).  This is likely a key reason why I groove to the beat so readily. 

Before I get into the meaning to “Heart of Mine”, I must explain that both the song and the album reminded me all week of what I was getting myself into with this Bob Dylan-centric series.  Dylan confronts the listener with harsh realities, more often and better than any other musician I know of.  Friends and family who read these blogs might be saying on occasion “what’s up with Pete?”, and perhaps to some degree they are on to something.  But not really.  As Dylan himself at my age once told a reporter who was questioning him about his songs and how personally heavy and confessional they sounded… aren’t we all there?  Aren’t you there?  The fact is Bob Dylan is an artist, and to tap into the artistic side of yourself, you need to confront the truth.  In many other professions, you can find ways to skirt it.  Not so in the art realm: You must reveal the truth in your work to be truly relevant.

I knew from day one that I had to build on that core truth with this Master Blueprint blog series, and that at times this process was going to be brutal. It was one thing with the Rolling Stones Stepping Stones series, another with the Neil Young Forever Young series and yet another with The Who Under the Big Top series.  Each had its own gravitational pull in terms of the revelatory effect the music had on me prior to and while I was writing (and I am in no way shape or form prepared to compare/contrast the reasons right now…. although it’s an intriguing thought which I will consider fleshing out when all is said and done).  But here is the key relative point: Bob Dylan appeals to my basic music-loving senses, in very similar fashion to the Stones, Neil Young, and The Who (and next up, the Beatles).  He’s the Real Deal.  As with those other artists, there is depth and there is breadth, allowing me to write about him for an entire year. With this said, I must address what comes to mind when I tackle inspired talking points on a week to week basis.  It’s that artist thing, ya know.

Ok, are we ready to move on?  I think I am, and to be more precise, I’m ready to get into the meaning of this under-the-radar song, “Heart of Mine”.  First off, I want to discuss further that prior-mentioned studio-musician crew that was pulled together for this song, specifically Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood.  It’s a good way to ease in. 

Often, when I try to put myself in the mindset of the classic rock musicians I love listening to, I find myself connecting with their 1970s world.  It may have something to do with the 70’s being my own formative period, but one thing for sure I’m drawn to is the variety of paths that musicians such as Starr, Dylan, and Wood took to stay relevant in their 2nd decade of public life, as well as Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Townshend, Moon, Richards, Jagger, Young and others.  Unlike their fallen comrades, including Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Brian Jones, Gram Parsons, and Danny Whitten, these musicians were survivors (at least for the time being for several of them), and most of them found ways to thrive moving forward out of the 60s. 

All sorts of adjustments and reevaluations came into play for these musicians in the 70s, including immersing into domestic life (Dylan, Lennon), religion (Dylan, Harrison, Townshend), epic artistic journeys (Quadrophenia, Blood on the Tracks, Exile on Main Street, Some Girls, Imagine, On the Beach, All Things Must Pass, Tonight’s the Night, Rust Never Sleeps, Who Are You) and musical experimentation into reggae, punk, country and gospel (Dylan, Richards, Jagger).  There were also coping mechanisms that played out in the form of drugs, hard living, etc., typical of what can happen to people after over a decade of life on the road and in the studio.  Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood kinda fell into that trap during the 70s (each would ultimately find his way out).  And yet both musicians have always come across to me as good souls seeking true meaning in life.  Almost always, kind words come out of their mouths, with nary a dig on anyone. Therefore, Ringo and Ronnie were always invited to the party, seeing as everyone loved having them around, including Bob Dylan.  They were happy to oblige, all the way to ‘last call’ and beyond, because that’s how it plays out when you are a diehard who is also ‘in search of’… you don’t want to miss a thing.  I can relate to it.

Anyhow, I find it pretty darn cool that these 2 characters showed up at the Shot of Love sessions.  Everyone and his brother knew at the time that Bob Dylan was completely honed into his Faith.  He was preaching the Gospel to anyone who would listen, and if you were going to play music with him, be prepared to hear him sing about Jesus.  With Starr and Wood being fun-loving fellas, good time Charlies, you would think they would avoid such an atmosphere like they would avoid the plague.  After all, Ringo had been through this type of thing before with the Maharshi in India.  He was the first Beatle to get the hell out of Dodge.  And Ronnie remains in a band that will never be known for spreading the Good Word (although there are elements there for the Rolling Stones in their first decade, which I covered in several of my Stepping Stones entries). 

If Bob Dylan’s religious stretch of albums came, say, 5 years earlier, I don’t believe we would have seen such a studio visitation by Wood and Starr.  But by the early 80s, diehards like these two were starting to see other fellow party animals drop like flies, be it through burnout, breakdown or death.   Keith Moon was one who was particularly close to both.  Others included John Bonham, Bon Scott, Harry Nilsson, and Pete Townshend (Scott, Moon, and Bonham all went off to that great “Tower of Song” in the sky, where Townshend and Nilsson succumbed to burnout and breakdown – thank goodness Townshend bounced out of it).  It was reality check time, and Bob Dylan was offering spiritual wisdom to his friends in the form of Slow Train Coming (‘79), Saved (‘80) and now Shot of Love, as well as all the related concerts he was performing at the time (give a listen to the mesmerizing Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Trouble No More 1979-1981 to hear what Dylan sounded like live during his Gospel years).  It appears Ringo and Ronnie were listening. 

I find it particularly poignant that Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr performed on “Heart of Mine”.  If not surrounded by proselytizing music on Shot of Love, this song could be interpreted as secular.  There are no overt religious connotations, just universally accepted dire warnings about the dangers of getting too enamored with yourself.  By the late 70s, Rock and Roll was on top of the world.  Musicians who were successful at it were masters of their universe; that “I am a Golden God!” sort of thing.  You had to be careful and not to let it get to your head.  “Heart of Mine” was a good way for Wood and Starr to wade into Bob Dylan’s brave new world without being bowled over.

Hmmm, so I spent most of my take on the meaning of “Heart of Mine” by relating the song to Bob Dylan’s friendly visitors in the studio.  I’d like to close by dissecting some of the lyrics.  Let’s start with the opening salvo, which kicks in while the musicians are still getting their feet under them:

Heart of mine be still
You can play with fire but you’ll get the bill

When I am singing along, I keep finding myself more often than not saying “pay the bill” in error.  This is a perfect (albeit minor) example of how Bob Dylan is a notch above the rest of the crowd.  I believe most other lyricists would have stated it the way I mistakenly do if they had written this song.  But in countless ways like this, Dylan always gets it just right.  In this example, he is saying that you will definitely get the bill at some point for misbehavior.  The choice is yours if you are willing to pay for it and in turn right the ship, so Dylan does not make that distinction.  The line hit me like a ton of bricks this past Monday on my way to work, singlehandedly pulling me from my original intent for the week (which was all lined up to be an entry centered on “Every Grain of Sand”).

The next line that hits me hard is:

Heart of mine go back home
You got no reason to wander, no reason to roam

This is the parable of The Prodigal Son in Dylan speak.  It’s a simple but deep message delivered in just 2 lines of lyrics; to try and connect with who we remember ourselves being when we were at our best. When we really knew who we were. 

And the last verse:

Heart of mine so malicious and so full of guile
Give you an inch and you’ll take a mile
Don’t let yourself fall
Don’t let yourself stumble
If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime
Heart of mine

Yow!  Like a good priest, Bob Dylan never lets you off the hook.  His music is like truth serum.  There is no comfort zone here, unless you are on the straight and narrow.  “Heart of Mine” brings out the soul searching in you and the discipline.  Despite the weighty subject matter, I love it, and again, that’s what I signed up for when I launched this series.

Every blessing.

Pete

Monday, July 23, 2018

Master Blueprints # 28: “The Man in Me Will Hide Sometimes to Keep from Bein’ Seen. But That’s Just Because He Doesn’t Want to Turn into Some Machine”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “The Man in Me”
Album: New Morning
Release Date: October 1970

Of the five chapters in Bob Dylan’s superb memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (which covers but three specifically selected periods of his life; 1961, 1970, and 1989), two of them are appropriately named after relatively less-familiar albums in his discography: New Morning (1970) and Oh Mercy (1989).  I went back to the book three months ago when I wrote my first entry centered on a song off Oh Mercy (“Man in the Long Black Coat” …. see Master Blueprints # 14).  And I went back again this week not long after slipping New Morning into the cd player for the first time in over a year. 

The “New Morning” chapter in Bob Dylan’s book did not have the same drawing power as the “Oh Mercy” chapter, but still, there was something gnawing at me which was quite independent of what had me going back to Chronicles back in April.  It had to do with the cult movie classic The Big Lebowski, particularly a singular lyric in the opening-credits song to that film, “The Man in Me” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s10ldVRHRSw ).  That lyric is the title of this blog entry (above), but seeing as it is so central to this week’s talking points, I will repeat it here:

The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from bein’ seen
But that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine

That gnawing-something stuck with me all through the “New Morning” chapter, in which the underlying storyline hinged on the anguish Bob Dylan was in back in the late-60s, relating to his personal life being intruded upon due to his being declared by many as the so-called leader of that period’s counterculture generation; a crown he did not want to wear.  In the chapter Dylan also writes about being invited to the western Massachusetts (my old stomping grounds) home of American poet/writer Archibald MacLeish, who wanted Dylan to write the score for a film he had in mind (a partnership which never panned out as is also discussed in the chapter).  It was all very intriguing to reread, but I thought I’d exhausted this avenue of potential inspiration…that is until the very last page. That’s when I found myself being moved as I read a line where Dylan discusses the Machiavelli treatise The Prince in his closing remarks to the chapter:

“Most of what Machiavelli said made sense, but certain things stick out wrong – like when he offers the wisdom that it’s better to be feared than loved, it kind of makes you wonder if Machiavelli was thinking big.  I know what he meant, but sometimes in life, someone who is loved can inspire more fear than Machiavelli ever dreamed of.

Ok, now I felt I had the pieces to write something; those being 1) the Coen Brothers movie-classic  The Big Lebowski, along with 2) that Bob Dylan lyric from “The Man in Me” and 3) that Chronicles: Volume One quote of his, which came across as a synopsis of the entire "New Morning" chapter.  Where I was going as I closed the book and laid it down, I was not all that sure.  I only knew it was somewhere interesting.  Next step:  A camping trip to the middle of Maine with my family.  I don’t know why, but I was confident this was going to help me connect the dots. 

                                                                  -----

Every family dynamic is unique.  I’ve been involved in two: The dynamic in my family that includes my Mom, Dad, 3 brothers and 2 sisters, and the dynamic in my family that includes my wife, son and daughter.  I could pull it all together, or even stretch it out some to include in-laws, nieces, nephews, maybe even grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, and call it one big happy family, but in terms of immediacy, I’ll leave it at those two.

There’s no comparing the dynamics in my two families really.  My family dynamics with myself-as-son-and-brother has all sorts of loving, weird and wonderful things going on, which would be a nice book to write someday (it would be much more than a blog entry, I can tell you that).  My family dynamics with myself-as-husband-and-father could also be written about in loquacious manner, but I’m going to try to condense it down to a few subplots from this past weekend here, while weaving in those three overarching concepts mentioned above.

It cannot be taken for granted pulling off a getaway weekend with a son who is one year into college and a daughter who is one year out.  We’ve done this every year of their lives, but now of course there was summer work to contend with, along with other interests that our children have which are independent of family.  There was also the not-so-minor detail of our daughter spending most of her life these days in Panama.  With Charlotte home for only two weeks before heading back, we squeezed out the best we could in order to have us all connecting with our common camping past. 

After cramming all the camping essentials into our Honda Accord, along with an amazingly durable cargo carrier, we set off for mid-state Maine.  The family dynamics kicked in right off as I pulled my usual maneuver when heading up rte. 3 in Southern New Hampshire, avoiding a $1 toll by taking the airport road and then reconnecting with the highway system several miles later.  New Hampshire crams all its tolls along the Massachusetts border to hit up the “Massholes” heading north.  It is the principle of the matter that has me skirting that toll, but my son Peter used another term: Dignity.  As in, I was maintaining my dignity by taking that detour.

I thought about this some as we drove on.  One thing about this family of mine is that there is no shortage of strong will, except for maybe myself to a degree.  I’ve found that I’ve had to play the roll over the years as the great compromiser to keep the wheels in motion.  With the strong will of my son, daughter and wife comes strong opinions and defiant challenges.  You will never find yourself off the hook in my family if you stray from your belief system, but the flip side of this is that you can be warmly recognized when you’ve done something right.  Sometimes it puts me in a Catch 22.  I find I need to break an impasse by compromising (and consequently hoping everyone can see the importance of doing this on occasion), but if I compromise too much, I’m called out.  For Peter to use the term dignity to describe my action at the toll booths was related to all this.  Peter has a boatload of dignity.  I could tell it was going to be an intriguing few days.

Somewhere around our border crossing into Maine, my mind wandered as the inevitable headphones were pulled out by the kids and my wife Nancy slept.  Why did the Coen Brothers, along with their musical archivist T-Bone Burnett, choose “The Man in Me” as essentially the theme song for The Big Lebowski?  I mean, here is a movie about an extremely laid-back dude who abides to the will of others so he can avoid any type of confrontation.  “The Dude” makes my family-related compromises look militaristic in comparison. The Dude is the quintessential bachelor, whose manhood is presumably buried deep inside; impossibly deep for a woman to hope to reach.  In contrast, “The Man in Me” is primarily about how the best-in-a-man can be freed from his proverbial shackles by a good, caring, loving woman.

After a 5-hour drive (including several pitstops) we pulled into Mt Blue State Park Campground by early evening.  Everyone put in the requisite effort as we set up camp.  Three tents and a screen house were erected in no time, as sleeping bags, sleeping mats, cots, luggage, stoves, folding chairs, coolers, lantern and hammock were distributed into appropriate spots to make for an instantaneous temporary home (again, amazing the shoehorning of all this and the 4 of us into that car).  A handful of Nancy’s homemade dishes were tapped into not soon after. My wife made this mini retreat happen.  As with our Costa Rica trip last year, she tends to rally the troops better than I these days.  Once I see that everyone is on board, I can dive right in.  But the hard part has already been taken care of, thanks to Nancy.

I got the campfire blazing and as activity continued around me, I zorbed out while staring into the flames thinking about Bob Dylan’s Machiavelli comment.  Chronicles: Volume One was published six years after The Big Lebowski was released in 1998.  I’m thinking Dylan was a fan of the movie, although there is no mention of it or “The Man in Me” in the “New Morning” chapter, or anywhere else in the book for that matter (for some perspective, in the "Oh Mercy" chapter, Dylan discusses how every song on that album came together).  I felt as if this quote was an indirect reference to both, however. That’s one-way Bob Dylan weaves his magic, be it in written word or song.  He forces you to think. 

My family settled in around me and we commenced to campfire chatter.  Charlotte took over, pouring out in incredible detail over a 2-hour stretch her recent three-week trip to Nicaragua, and having us all spellbound.  Nicaragua is a country that is currently in turmoil, due to it’s being run by a compassionless, self-centered dictatorial imp (sound familiar?).  Charlotte arrived just as protests were ramping up.  This was a true adventure, although it had us on pins and needles here at home as it was playing out, particularly near the end of the trip.  I recalled my younger, wanderlust self, my daughter having inherited this trait and now clearly taking it a few steps further than I ever did. 

As I lied down in my sleeping bag and stared out at the star-filled night sky, I continued to try and pull it all together; the book, the movie, the song, and now the camping trip.  Yes, the Dude abided oh so readily, but he was also endearing.  This is why the movie is so popular.  People can relate to this character.  Abiding is one way of avoiding being “turned into some machine”, is it not?  At first glance, this may sound contradictory, but with more thought it can also be seen as a survival technique.  Survival of one’s soul that is.  Yes, The Dude abides to the self-centered whims (often superficial) of those around him.  He lets them have their way.  This allows him to keep his core beliefs intact.  He maintains his integrity; his dignity.  And in turn, he is loved - or despised - by those around him.  Those who love him are true to their own core beliefs, despite how radical they may be (i.e. Walter).  Those who despise him are motived more by self centeredness and/or superficiality.   

Saturday was a picture-perfect day.  There was not a cloud in the sky as we paddled our four kayaks across the deceptively large Webb Lake, getting a clear gander at the surrounding mountain range, which included the bald-faced, picturesque peaks that are Tumbledown and Little Jackson, along with Mt Blue itself.  I’d like to think I felt I knew Maine pretty well, having touched on many of its corners over the years (see Master Blueprint # 20).  But the magnificent Mt. Blue region had remained elusive until only 5 years ago when I took Charlotte on a Maine/New Brunswick tour to look at college campuses, including nearby UMaine Farmington.  Anyhow, as we looked up at the peaks around us out on that lake, we all agreed we needed to conquer Tumbledown then and there, so after returning the rental kayaks we headed back to the campsite to get geared up. 

It was a helluva vertical climb, which had Nancy turning back around the two-thirds mark.  With the kids way ahead of us (or so we thought at the time), it was decided I should forge ahead. It was also decided that instead of backtracking, Charlotte, Peter and I would complete a loop, Nancy driving the car a mile or so down the mountain road to meet us at the other trailhead.  This would allow us to take in some additional breathtaking scenery, including an alpine pond tucked in-between Tumbledown and Little Jackson. 

Not long after parting ways with Nancy I hit a clearing which was both spectacular and daunting.  The daunting part had to do with my sudden realization that I had a long, vertical ways to go.  How could this be?  The map said it was 1 ½ miles to the top, but it felt as if I had already climbed that distance.  I suppose that’s what hiking a virtual 90-degree ladder will do to the mind.  Oh well.  I yelled out for Charlotte and Peter.  Nothing.  I was a bit surprised they would not have waited by this point.  I forged ahead, calling out every 50 yards or so as I continued to reflect.

Again, that Machiavelli comment: How can being loved induce fear and loathing in others?  I like to look at it from another angle:  How can someone else being loved to be like a mirror on ourselves when we see this tremendous gift in that person?  We all go through stretches where we are the lost sheep.  Some are in so deep, however, that they see no way out.  And so, they lash out at those who have the love and the peace of mind, trying to bring them down to their level rather than they focus on putting in the extra effort to climb up and out.  You need a good support network to make that happen.  I have that support network.  It’s a blessing I can never take for granted.

Ah, after nearly an hour, finally, a response.  It was Charlotte, but her voice was coming from way below me!  What the?  I sat and waited, refusing to drink from my water jug until they arrived (Charlotte and Peter had no water on them and so I felt I should do this in solidarity).  When we finally reunited, Peter explained they had veered off the trail, and onto a false peak.  They then had to backtrack.  After reconnecting with the trail, they soon ran into their Mom on her way down.  Nancy brought them up to speed on our plan. 

After a few gulps of ice water each, we carried on.  At one point we were hiking through a cave, using metal rungs to shimmy through “Fat Man’s Misery”, all in all a mini-East coast Yosemite Half Dome experience.  This was a capital-H Hike.  Not long after the cave, we hit the summit and strolled along the striking bald-faced ridge to the larger-than-expected alpine pond (which looked like a miniature-bonsai Lake Tahoe) and then down the connecting trail.  Not halfway down we ran into Nancy, who was making her way up the trail to greet us.  The four of us then descended down to the car as the sun set over the horizon, another night and day of camping ahead of us.

Bob Dylan sounds so wonderfully upbeat on the studio version of “The Man in Me”.  It’s a rare treat to hear him throwing out “La, La, La’s” or anything like it, as he does at the beginning of the song, sounding more like Van Morrison than himself.  T-Bone Burnett, a musician with strong ties to Dylan (including as a band member on the Rolling Thunder Review Tour) certainly picked up on this, ultimately relaying his connection with the song to the Coen Brothers.  But the real heart of “The Man in Me” is in that aforementioned closing lyric, the title of this entry…. at least in terms of how the song fits with the “New Morning” chapter in Chronicles, as well as the core ideals expressed in The Big Lebowski.  It can be a rough and tumble(down) world out there.  Sometimes you can find shelter by simply tucking it all away.  But it’s best to confront it.  It’s not easy to do, but with a little help from a loving support network, the man in me, and in all of us, can show his/her face more often than not.


Attached are several photos from our family weekend getaway.

Pete